Program provides area youth a Safe Haven

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By Tom Wilmoth

Safe Haven has a message for Bedford area residents: The program works, it’s open to all area youth and it’s worthy of the community’s support.

“Over the years we have really made an impact on the children’s lives,” stated Camille Steepleton, youth services coordinator with the Historic Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Safe Haven, located at Raintree Village Apartments, is a free, youth program that seeks to help at-risk youth ages 4 to 18. During the school year it provides a place after school for children to go and receive help on homework. During the summer, Safe Haven serves as a gathering place for children from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily to get lunch and an afternoon nutritious snack.

“We tutor and mentor children during the school year,” Steepleton said. That can include working on homework or science projects. Students who have finished their homework are given extra learning opportunities geared to areas they might be struggling with in school.

Safe Haven, which serves from 20 to 50 children, also provides various recreational activities including field trips and trips to the YMCA to swim.

Safe Haven originally started as a program run by the Bedford County School System in the mid-1990s through a grant, according to Victoria Johnson, executive director of the Historic Chapter. When the grant money ran out, she said a non-profit was sought out to take over. “We were the only ones who stepped up to do it,” she said.

And support has been falling, making it increasingly difficult to operate the program.

“For a little money, we have really pushed the limits of what we’ve been able to do here,” Johnson said. “For us, it’s a daily struggle to keep the door open.”

Safe Haven operates on a $125,000 annual budget, some of which is provided by in-kind donations. The school system provides the building at Raintree and helps with maintenance on the facility. The school system also takes care of some utility costs.

This year, the city of Bedford is providing $7,500, down from its original commitment of $25,000 when the program began, Johnson said. The city had originally considered providing $15,000 this year but cut all of its outside agency support in half, to help balance this year’s budget. Council had actually considered dropping its support of the program altogether, but that motion was voted down by a majority of council members.

“The Red Cross originally took this over because of a commitment from the city to support it,” Johnson said. “It is difficult with waning support to continue to operate.”

A majority of Safe Haven’s funding comes from the city, the United Way and several area organizations such as the Bedford Kiwanis and Bedford Ruritans. Grants, such as from the USDA Summer Food program, also help pay for the programs.

“We’re going to have to reevaluate at the end of the year,” Johnson said. “Our biggest problem is that donations are down in general to non-profits. It’s difficult to anticipate how donations will come in.”

During the school year, the youth attending Safe Haven go straight from the school bus to the double-wide. They receive mentoring, study assistance and a nutritional snack from the staff. The program is open from 3-5:30 p.m. during the week.

Computers line the wall — provided by the Bedford Kiwanis — and they can work on school projects. The Internet is provided by funding through the Ruritans.

Steepleton said the goal is to not only provide help for the youth, but also expose them to a variety of activities such as Healthy Kids Day and local youth fishing clinics. The youth of Safe Haven also participate in community service activities such as Make a Difference Day and the Youth Day of Caring.

“I’ve seen a great change in the children,” said Steepleton, who has worked with Safe Haven for eight years. “I’ve seen some children who were headed down the wrong path. Today, I look at them and say, ‘Wow.’”

And youth give the program credit, as well. Some return to help mentor the younger children.

Three youth who came through Safe Haven now serve in the armed forces and two have recently graduated from college. Others have gone on to take jobs in the area.

Last year children from Safe Haven helped plant and tend the W.E. Stevens Victory Garden at the National D-Day Memorial. The program received national recognition, receiving a Youth Garden Grant, having been selected for that honor from among 700 youth gardening programs nationwide.

Steepleton said she starts early on in their high school career to help the youth attending Safe Haven to try and focus on what they want to do in the future.

She said the program provides exactly what it states — a safe haven.

“Some of these children have to deal with (situations) they shouldn’t have to (as children). They know that when they come here they can relax. ...I always tell them I’m their confidant.”

She makes it simple for them. “Leave your troubles at the door and just come on in and have a good time.”

The youth know that during the school year they have to come in and get to work on their homework, after being given a few minutes to unwind. “It’s working,” she said of the program. “We have a program here that actually helps children.”

And they know they have to obey the rules. “I’m a stickler for that,” she said.

Steepleton loves her job. “It gives me great joy,” she said of working with the children.” She said a word of encouragement and positive reinforcement can go a long way to helping put a child on the right path.

Johnson agreed.

“Our program is offering a vital service,” she said. “Without the service we offer, many of these kids would become burdens on other systems within the county or city that would require more money to handle them than it costs us to run this program.”

She said the program has positively impacted both Raintree and the entire area.

“Our operation of this program dramatically reduced the number of youth incidents that they (the city) had to respond to here,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to help these children break the cycles that they’re in.”

She said Safe Haven helps the youth see the benefit of being helped and of helping others. “We want them to become productive in our community as opposed to being a part of the system.”

She said it makes sense for a community to put money into funding a project like Safe Haven on the front end, helping the youth become productive in the community. “We do pay in one way or another. What greater benefit could we get than putting money in to developing our future leaders and citizens.”

Johnson said sometimes seeing is believing. She encourages those interested in helping out to visit.

Those wanting more information can call 586-7655 or 586-7792.